Tinkering With Photosynthesis, Scientists See 40% Jump in Plant Productivity

The ultimate goal is to introduce these adaptations into important plants like wheat, rice and soybeans – and feed a world that’s only becoming hungrier.

Scientists believe they can increase crop productivity by 40% by making plants better at photosynthesis.

During photosynthesis, plants take in carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and ‘fix’ it into useful sugars with the help of a protein called RuBisCO. In essence, this protein has the tough task of kick-starting photosynthesis – and it often makes mistakes.

RuBisCO sometimes grabs oxygen instead of carbon dioxide molecules, creating a toxic compound inside the plant called a glycolate. The plant then tries to rescue the situation and flushes the carbon dioxide it has back out into the atmosphere.

This process is called photorespiration. It’s inefficient because the plant produces less energy in the same amount of time. It’s wasteful because it loses carbon dioxide as well as some energy.

Some plants have found workarounds. Those growing in hot, dry conditions have evolved adaptations that preclude photorespiration. Others ‘inhale’ carbon dioxide at night and process it during the day.

However, agriculturally important plants like wheat, rice and soybeans don’t possess these adaptations. And photorespiration reduces photosynthetic efficiency in these plants by 20-50%, especially in a warming, crowded planet. What do we do?

Whatever we do, we need to replicate the global Green Revolution of 1960-2005, when food production increased by 165%.

“Those traits that drove the Green Revolution are largely maximised. So if we need to double it again, we are going to have to find new traits on which to do it,” Donald Ort, a professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana, told The Wire.

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